The grandest of grandparents

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Well, we’re home.  Five weeks is a long time to be away, and I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoy driving my own car and drooling on my own pillow.  I do love my house, my beer pints, my shower, and… what else?  Oh, that husband of mine!  Boy was I glad to see him!  The airport reunion between Clark and the kids was sweet, but they ditched their poor dad before we even made it to our driveway.  The neighbors were out playing catch, so Clark slowed down for them to say hello.  Sam stuck his head out the window and yelled, “WE’RE BACK!”  The kids swarmed the car and before we knew it they were off.  The last thing I heard was, “Woah, you’re all tan!” before they headed off for an 11PM play date.  What can you do?  Summer in Alaska… we were home!

A lot of my friends wonder how I handle going back to Nebraska to live with my parents for a month every summer.  And to be fair, I think my parents’ friends wonder the same thing (in reverse).  It seems that we all love our families, but maybe not all quite that much.

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The no-lemons-but-only-lemonade-day!

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My brother and I grew up on a gravel road, several miles from the nearest highway or town.  But you bloom where you’re planted, right?  So one day we decided to give the lemonade stand thing a go.  We set up shop at the bottom of our driveway, and parked ourselves in the sweltering heat.  The traffic on our old country road averaged one car an hour, so I can’t imagine what we were thinking.  I can’t remember how long we sat there, how many cars kicked dust in our face as they zipped past us, or how much we charged for our little cups of lemonade.

What I do remember is the kindness of one woman and her teenage daughter.  Their car initially flew past our driveway, but a few seconds later we saw brake lights.  As we fanned the dust from our eyes we realized they were backing up.  We joyously wiped the dirty sweat from our foreheads as we watched the ladies stop their car and climb out.

Customers.  Our first!  We poured them their lemonade (who knows how horrid and hot it was by then) and they paid us a full dollar for the two glasses.  They refused to accept any change.  A DOLLAR!  We were overjoyed.  After they left, we closed our shop and screamed up the driveway with glee.

I wish I knew who those ladies were, so all these years later I could thank them for the five minutes they spent showing kindness to a couple of country kids.

I had forgotten this memory until “Cousin Week” two years ago, when I emerged from the shower to find the kids making giant vats of lemonade.  They had decided to have a lemonade stand contest, right here at Grandma and Grandpa’s.  It was Kylie and Sam vs. Madi and Maggie.  In addition to lemonade, Kylie and Sam recited Shel Silverstein poetry to all their customers.  They thought it gave their stand an edge.

Of course, their only customers were the family members who drove out here to visit us.  The kids still had fun, but this year we decided to step it up a notch and move the business into town. Grandma Nola lives on a great street with plenty of shade and traffic, and she was definitely game!

I tried to make it educational, price shopping for the products and calculating the profit margin.  Dad hooked us up with a donation of ice from the local liquor store, and we were set for business!

Most of our customers were Nola’s neighbors, family members, and the Great Grandmas.  The mail lady stopped for a few glasses, and so did a random lawn mowing service dude.

In the end the kid made a $13 profit.  They decided to combine their funds to buy a board game to keep at Grandma and Grandpa’s that they can play here every year.  It is called Headbanz, and it is hilarious!

Enjoying the lemonade stand profits... playing Headbanz in the driveway!

Here are the lemonade stand photo highlights from today:

Adorable entrepreneurs!

Off to get ice!

 

Waiting and waiting for customers...

Business was slow at first, so Kylie escaped to the tree with a good book!

Madi and Sam... if I had to guess, I'd say she is harassing him about that tooth!

Drinking the profits!

Getting ready to serve the mail lady...

Serving the Lawngevity guy. Catchy name for a mowing service!

After sitting all day at the lemonade stand, the kids were wired to play tonight!  On the drive home we had to stop and check out the pigs:

Once we got home, the kids were thrilled to see that Grandpa’s “kiddie pool” was all set up.  They had a blast, even though the water was freezingly fresh from the tap:

And then came the highlight of the kids’ day.  Not the lemonade stand or even the pool.  Nope.  Every year it is all about truck rides with Grandpa.  We can hear them squeal with joy as they cruise up and down the pasture, precariously bouncing in the greasy back of his Dodge Dakota.  You’d think we had  roller coaster in the bean field the way these kids howl!

What? No car seats?

Oftentimes less is more:  we should just hang out here all day!  After truck rides Grandma spotted a Praying Mantis, and Maggie was quite interested:

Once again the night ended too late… the kids were busy catching fireflies and had no interest in coming inside.  Eventually the promise of milkshakes lured them into the kitchen, and Hugo Cabret helped calm them for bed.

Which is good, because they need their rest. Another big day is planned for tomorrow!


The Very-Good-No-Worst Day

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We have this game we play at dinner called “Best & Worst,” where everyone at the table shares the best and worst events of their day.  Today, hardly anyone had a worst to share.  Maggie’s worst was scraping her knee when she fell off her scooter, and my worst was forgetting to take towels to the pool.  None of the other six people at the table could think of a bad thing that had happened to them all day.  Good stuff!

We are in the midst of our fourth annual “Cousin Week.”  Our family is sadly spread out:  we live in Anchorage, my brother’s crew lives in Missouri, and my folks and younger sister are still in Nebraska.  To compensate for the distance, we make a point of getting the kids together for a gigantic week-long sleepover at their grandparents’ house every summer.  Cousin Week!!

The kids love the tree in Nola's front yard!

Honestly, this week is a highlight of my year.  My brother’s girls are an absolute delight, and it gives me such joy to see the instant bond the kids have with each other.  Every year it takes about five minutes for them to reconnect.  They are family, and they know it.

I have many friends who regularly travel to exotic locations.  It sometimes makes me feel a bit unworldly, hearing about their adventures.  Part of me (a large part!) envies them, but I have yet to choose those trips over this week I get each year with my nieces.  Back to Nebraska.  Back to country roads and corn.  But, most importantly, back to family.

It takes about six hours to drive from my parents’ house to my brother’s, so we often meet halfway in Kansas City for a quick kid swap.  This year I decided to drive all the way to Jeff City to kidnap his girls.  It gave me a weekend with his family down there, which is rare since he works crazy hours at a car dealership and seldom has enough time off to come back to Nebraska these days.

The time in Jeff City was perfect.  We headed to a pool, grilled burgers and brats, sat around a fire pit, drank too many beers, told childhood stories, mentored our wayward younger sister, played board games, and fed some ducks.  No amusement parks this year – just some low key family time.

Maggie lost a tooth down there, while Sam earned the nickname “Fang.”  (His front tooth is still dangling, and he actually answers to “Fang” now.)

Maggie is down a tooth, but Sam still has the Fang...

So back to today’s very-good-no-worst-day.  It started with a pancake breakfast and unpacking.  From there the kids climbed a tree, ate lunch at Runza, bought supplies for tomorrow’s lemonade stand, and headed to the Splash Station Water Park.  Madi was finally tall enough to do the big slides, and she proudly conquered the Blue Slide everyone says is so terrifying.  About five times!

Sam might be scared of pulling his teeth, but he did do the lily pad things for the first time.  He was proud of his successful traverse, but did admit that he is not yet ready for American Ninja Warrior:

Maggie did them too, but my favorite pool picture of her past few days was actually down in Jefferson City.  She now jumps off a diving board all by herself!

After the pool fun, my parents cooked one of their amazing meals.  Dad grilled the chicken, Mom chopped the salad, and Grandma Quigley joined us for the evening.  That would be great-Grandma Quigley to all these kiddos:

The kids played tether ball, shot hoops, and started on a scavenger hunt my mom has spent hours putting together.  After dinner it was time to assemble the swimming pool.  Dad was supposed to pick up a “kiddie pool” from Menard’s today, but he went a little overboard:

The hose has been running for hours and there are only a few inches of water in the bottom of the pool.  We will leave it on all night and see what happens.  Stay tuned!

I told Dad I was jealous.  “Think how much fun we could have had with this growing up!” I declared.

“Well, you were just my kids,” he responded.  “This is for my grandkids.”  Well okay then!

The night ended with showers, milkshakes, and Maggie falling asleep during Chapter 1 of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (this year’s Cousin Week Read Aloud).

So yep, a pretty perfect day.  And the week has only just begun!


Nebraska Nightmares

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It’s ironic that we live in bear and moose country in Alaska, but the kids’ most scarring animal and insect stories always happen in Nebraska.


Black bear on Potter Valley Road... no big deal!

In 2008 we had our first Nebraska summer trip, and our 4-year-old Sam was terrified through half of it.  With his full-blown insect phobia, he wasn’t a happy camper in the tall weeds of Nebraska.  I’d hold him on my hip, his feet kicking in fear and protest lest I set him down into the grass with the chirping crickets.  He hopped higher than the grasshoppers whenever he would see one.  He spent more time scooping dead bugs from the kiddie pool than swimming in it, and we won’t even talk about his reaction to bees and wasps.  Insects were bad, but those that flew and buzzed were the stuff of nightmares.

Three years ago it was Maggie.  She must have been 3-years-old, constrained in her 5-point-harness car seat.  I left the kids in the car for two minutes while I put the dog into his kennel, and the next thing I knew both kids were shrieking.  A daddy-long-legs spider was crawling up Maggie’s body and she was helpless to do anything about it.  She was kicking and shrieking and screaming, and even Sam was scarred just watching the ordeal.  As they tell it the spider made its way all the way up to her face.

Two years ago it was poor Maggie again.  I was down at the barn picking mulberries when her howling sent me bolting back to the house.  She had been running through the grass, barefoot, and stepped on a black snake with a yellow stripe.  Both kids were again terrified and trembling on the porch when I found them.  We tried to assure her that it was a harmless bull snake, but in all honestly I would have wigged out too.

This year the terror moved inside, for all of us.  The kids were happily playing with my childhood Smurfs:

I had a lot of Smurfs.  Whenever we come home, the kids use them to invade the Fisher Price castle:

But back to the story.  Two nights ago my sister was standing in the living room doorway, gabbing away when she stopped mid-sentence and started screaming.  Maggie looked up from the Smurfs at the commotion.  She pointed and screamed “MOUSE!!!” before leaping over the castle and onto my lap.  Sam piled on top of her and I must admit my legs were as far off the ground as possible too.  The three of us were stacked on the recliner like dominoes while that little brown hairball of terror zig-zagged around the room.

My parents were shockingly calm.  Mom went into soccer mode, using her feet to keep the intruder from leaving the room.  In the end my dad caught it in his hand… still alive… and threw it outside.  (Quite possibly to return another day, which is why I cannot sleep at night!)

I am not sure whether to be repulsed or amazed with my dad’s actions.  I grew up in this farm house and mice were always a part of life.  But we don’t have them at our home in Alaska, and suddenly the scurrying little rodents terrify the snot out of me.  It’s like hydroplaning down the highway in a torrential Midwestern downpour… I was fine with it as a teenager, but it’s simply not something I’m used to doing these days.

Strange but true, but my comfort zone now includes icy roads, bears, and moose.  At least they all stay outside my house!


Yellow

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I’m worried about our old dog.  Yesterday I came home and found her stuck half in and half out of her doggie door.  It requires a slight hop to get through, and her back legs barely have the strength anymore.  I helped her outside, where she  struggled to squat and do her business.  She typically prefers to be outdoors, but yesterday she wanted to come back inside immediately.  Red flag.  I leaned down to help her back into the garage, and was surprised to find that I could easily lift and carry her.  Another red flag.  She’s lost so much weight, which is not surprising since she will no longer eat anything but soft food.

Bailey, age 14

Bailey as a pup: Fall 1997

Granted, she is a 14 year old Labrador, so I know our days with her are numbered.  But this dog was like my first child, and it’s not going to be easy.  We’ve been hoping she would make it through the summer – she turns 15 in August and I can guarantee we’d throw her one heck of a party!  But after yesterday, I ‘m scared she is not going to make it that long.

We adopted Bailey within months of moving to Alaska in 1997.  Clark and I both desperately wanted a dog, and as soon as we were settled into an apartment it was the first thing on our to-do list.  Furniture could wait, a puppy could not.

I was teaching 7th grade language arts at the time, and a boy in my class wrote a journal entry about a rogue neighborhood Chocolate Lab who had impregnated their pure bred Golden Retriever. They weren’t thrilled, but once the little fluff-balls were born, they couldn’t help but fall in love with every last one of them.  I immediately accosted my student:  Did he have photos?  Could I meet the puppies?  Were they up for adoption?

And so it began.  We picked Bailey from the litter, and they swiped a line of fingernail polish across her fur to mark her as ours.  It was an agonizing wait to bring her home, and we visited her often as we waited for her to be weaned and safely separated from her mother.

 

  

That poor dog curbed my maternal instincts for years:  I sent out birth announcements, created a scrapbook of her adventures, and threw her birthday parties.  I even kept her baby teeth (still have them, in fact).  In hindsight, I realize how insane I was about this animal!

Bailey's first birthday: were we ready to be parents or what?!

As a young dog, she went everywhere with us.  From quick trips to the grocery store to week-long excursions down the Kenai River, that dog was always by our side and eager for the ride.  She preferred the front passenger seat, where she insisted on “holding hands” while driving.  Literally.  She would hold up her left paw and insist on placing it in the driver’s right hand as we cruised down the road.  Back then airline travel was easier with pets too, as Delta only charged $50 to check a dog kennel.  She regularly flew from Alaska to Nebraska, where she went pheasant hunting with Clark.  She loved every minute of it, and would always come home weary, bloody, and excruciatingly happy.

Pheasant hunting in Nebraska

Clark and Bailey in Nebraska

Bailey has always loved Clark more than anyone.  If he’s in the room, she wants to lie at his feet.  She loves the way he scratches her rump and curiously watches his every move.  He’s head over heals for that hound too.  One time she fell through the ice on a lake in Nebraska, and against every bit of sanity he stripped down and slid out to save her struggling butt.  I’m lucky they are both still alive today.

Bailey is a highly intelligent dog, but Clark and I both admit she’s a few Milkbones short of sanity.  Our first clue was her “alligator snapping” habit.  She loves to lower down on her front haunches before spiraling up and chomping the air in the general direction of  anyone who is willing to play with her.  Lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp.  It’s a wonder she still has teeth after all that chomping she did in her youth.  It freaked out our vet so much that he wanted to put her on Prozac.  We tried puppy classes, where the trainer just raised her eyebrows in amazement at our dog’s strange snapping behavior.

I wish we would have had a video camera back in the days when she would play with the yard sprinkler.  That brought on some seriously hilarious chomping.

When  Bailey was younger, her favorite activity was to go on car rides.  (She quickly devolved from the endearing hand-holding phase to this psychotic truck-chasing craze.)  We’d fold down the rear seats, and she would stand rigid with her head perched between the driver and passenger seats.  Her entire body would freeze – with the exception of her silently swishing tail – as she peered down the highway for oncoming traffic.  She’d let the little cars pass, but approaching semis would send her flying into the rear window, barking and chomping all the way.  Crazy doesn’t even begin to describe it!

When she was nearly two years old, we adopted Kodi.  Although Bailey was gentle, curious, and tolerant of this new puppy friend, I must admit these two never fully bonded.  In their younger years they ran together, played tug-of-war with ropes, and even wrestled on occasion.  But Bailey was far too curmudgeonly and territorial to snuggle or sleep with Kodi, and in confined quarters she would even snarl at the poor girl.

Kodiak, 9 weeks

Bailey checks out her new sister

The new family at mealtime

Kodi loved to fetch from day one, but Bailey hated the competition from her speedy sister.  She would put up a few futile efforts before abandoning the game, prancing off to do her own thing:  peeing on flowers, chomping on grass, or swimming after ducks.  She was like an otter in the water, so graceful and calm.  I can remember watching in terrified amazement as she would take dips in the harbor at Valdez, knowing it was nearly 800 feet deep right off the shore.  No matter to Bailey – she was a confident swimmer no matter how deep or frigid the water.

Water dog that she is, Bailey loved our raft.  At home she could sleep for 20 hours a day, but out on the river she remained alert and excited.  She constantly shifted herself to the downwind position, and we could literally see her nose flicking in joy at all the new smells and experiences.  By the end of the float she would literally fall asleep sitting up, so stimulated from the sights and smells of the river.

Tired dog: Kenai River, 2011

Sadly, her swimming and hiking days are done.  Two years ago we were in the woods seeking out the perfect Christmas tree, but Bailey couldn’t even step over the fallen spruce trunks.  Her eyes told us she still wanted to be there, but her poor body would just not cooperate.

Bailey and Kodi (ages 14 and 13): Christmas 2011

It’s crazy, but Bailey has been with us in every home we’ve rented or owned since moving to Alaska.  From the 425-square-foot condo where we started to the RV Clark lived in during a seasonal job in Glenallen, she was there:

See her in the back window? Say hi!

When we bought our first home with a fenced yard she was ecstatic.  A few years later we bought a duplex, and that move threw her a bit.  Eventually she adjusted, and both dogs grew very accustomed to the freedom of a doggie door.  But now, after several happy years at the duplex, we have uprooted them one last time.  Our new home has too many steps for Bailey’s weary legs, and she spends most of her time asleep on a pet bed in the garage.  Is this what she wants?

I wish she could tell us what to do.  Is she content to sit back and watch, or is she in so much pain that she wants us to let her go?  Does she want us to carry her upstairs in the evenings, or let her be on her pet bed in the garage?  Does she want to be pet and brushed, or does it hurt her sensitive skin?  Although she can no longer hear us, her eyebrows still flick back and forth inquisitively when we talk to her.  She won’t eat dry dog food, but she does seem to enjoy the table scraps and canned food we have been supplementing.

I guess I am preparing myself.  It could be weeks or it could be months, and all I can do is pray that we know when the time is right – for her, more than us.  She is what matters.

When the time comes, I already know how I will imagine her.  She’ll once again have strength in those legs that are failing her, and she will be able to run and swim and chomp and smile and be her crazy self.  Maybe a few other dogs in heaven will snarl and put her in her place, and that would be okay too.  As long as they all love her… and as long as we have loved her enough.


Blooming Where We’re Transplanted

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“Bloom where you’re planted.”

I have no idea who originally came up with this brilliant gem of advice, but I was the parent of a four-year-old the first time I heard it uttered by Teacher Tom at the Anchorage Cooperative Preschool.  It’s one of those phrases that has stuck with me ever since.

My family and I have just returned from the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks Alaska, and I can assure you the people in that community have fully embraced the philosophy.  They were “planted” in one of the most frigid areas of a state that is already ridiculously cold, and as an extra kick in the bunny boots they get to shiver without daylight for about 20 hours per day in the worst of the dark winter months.

Yet these people are blooming.  The universe dealt them snow and ice, and they decided to turn it into a party.  The crystal clear frozen water near Fairbanks draws ice carvers from all over the world, and people flock to the community to view their masterpieces.

     


 Ice carvings & slides

Alaska is an amazing place.  There aren’t many roads to travel, but they never look the same.  The vista is so incredible that I often view it with misty eyes, blinking to focus on the beauty and wiping my tingly nose so I can break out my camera and try to capture the impossible.  The adventure and unknown is part of why we moved here.

But all this suddenly and catastrophically changed once we had children.  The scenery outside could longer compare with the view inside our own living room.  What mountain range can compare to watching your children learn to crawl, and then toddle, and finally dance?  To seeing your husband as a father too?  To the mess of baking sugar cookies at Christmas?  We are blessed to live in the age of Skype and email, but it just isn’t the same when you want to share these experiences with family.

We spent a few years vacillating – move back home, move closer to home, or just stay where we are?  Admittedly, we were sick of the constant search for plane tickets, and all our vacations were spent visiting the family we missed so much.  We were ready to get back onto a realistic road system where we could take some affordable trips and see some new highways.

But then reality hit.  It was easy to pack up and move to Alaska when we were in our 20′s, when it was just Clark and I and one GMC Jimmy full of crap.  We didn’t worry about giving up good jobs, health insurance, or retirement benefits back then.  Now we do.  Now we have these two little children to think about.  College funds for their brilliant minds.  We are already halfway through our careers here, and the thought of starting over is overwhelming as well.

So, right or wrong, we have decided to bloom where we’re transplanted.

For us, that means enjoying the best of what Alaska has to offer.  We have a raft, which allows us to quietly float rivers in the summer to fish and camp as a family.  We have miles of trails to explore by foot.  We bought a home with a view, so even on the ordinary days we can look out the window and realize Alaska isn’t such a bad place to be a “stuck.”  Combine that with all the amazing relationships and friendships we have formed here, and it’s hard to imagine ever leaving.  (Except when I find myself pushing a fully loaded shopping card through the Costco parking lot in December… that is misery for a gal who is prone to forgetting where she parked!)

    The raft… Kenai River
The view… Cook Inlet

I’m fortunate to have summers off, so every year the kids and I head back to Nebraska for a full month to enjoy family, friends, and garden vegetables.  The annual “cousin week” is a highlight, as is the Fourth of July (fireworks are not nearly as exciting in Alaska, since it doesn’t even get dark in the summer).  It also gives our kids a glimpse of the childhood we remember:  lightning storms, scorched legs on leather car seats, swimming outdoors in muddy lakes, and snitching garden tomatoes fresh from the vine.

 
Husker Summers

Compromise?  I suppose.  The right decision?  Time will tell.  It’s strange to think that we are raising little Alaskans, but if we keep taking them back to Nebraska every summer we’re confident they will remain Husker football fans each fall.  And really, what could be more important than that?